Pan-African Group Elects First Female Leader

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The African Union commission has elected its first female leader. The organization chose South African politician Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to chair the administrative arm of the continental organization. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton talks to Audie Cornish about why her election is significant.


The new head of the African Union Commission is the first woman to hold a leadership position in the pan-African organization. She was elected this weekend, after a bruising and divisive contest. The medical doctor, diplomat, and veteran cabinet minister will run the organization's administrative arm. And she happens to be a former wife of South Africa's president.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us from her base in Dakar, Senegal, to tell us more. And, Ofeibea, the new chairman of the African Union Commission, tell us her name and her ties to that body.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: She's called Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. She's, as you said, a medical doctor - a pediatrician. She is a long term minister under all South Africa's presidents since the end of apartheid. That's under Nelson Mandela, under Thabo Mbeki, and under her ex-husband, Jacob Zuma. She is the outgoing Home Affairs minister. And she was foreign minister 10 years ago when the African Union was launched in Durban, South Africa, taking over from the Organization of African Unity.

So she certainly has the credentials. She certainly has the smarts. She's a very strong woman, doesn't smile much but she certainly knows what she's about: South African politics and continental African politics.

CORNISH: Now, as we mentioned, there was a bit of a struggle to select a new head of the AU Commission. Help us understand the politics there. Why?

QUIST-ARCTON: Usually it's a small country that gets the leadership of the African Union Commission, so that the big hitters, the heavyweights such as South Africa, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, the will of those big countries doesn't dominate what goes on at the African Union. But it's been felt by some that over the last four years, with Jean Ping, a former foreign minister of oil-rich Gabon - a small French-speaking nation - that the African Union has not perhaps played the role that it should on the global scene.

So it's felt that somebody like Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is perhaps going to do more for the profile of the African Union and of Africa. So, yes, there was a struggle. Yes, it was rather bitter and divisive. But people say Africa needs to focus on its priorities, which at the moment the multiple conflict and crises that are going on in the continent. And that this battle between French-speaking and English-speaking small countries and big countries is not the point. Africa is the priority.

CORNISH: Now, what role does the African Union play on the continent? I don't know how deeply it's got involved in these conflicts.

QUIST-ARCTON: Very much so, and people are saying that this battle over the leadership of the African Union Commission has distracted the heads of state from the priorities, such as two coups since they met last in January in Mali, which has ballooned into a rebellion. And Guinea Bissau; the troubles in Nigeria with the radical Islamist Boko Haram; of course, Somalia and the simmering tensions between Sudan and South Sudan; as well as the conflict in eastern Congo.

So there are lots of real problems that the African Union needs to be dealing with, trying to resolve these problems. It's hoped that with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the head of the commission, that there's going to be more impact felt in issues such as resolving the conflicts in Africa. But for the critics of South Africa, they say South Africa was flying solo on issues such as the crisis in Libya last year, and the one in Ivory Coast.

And some people fear that the politics of South Africa, a heavyweight on the continent, may come to dominate because the leader of the commission is from South Africa. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma says, you know what, I'm not an Anglophone or Francophone, I'm a Zulu even. I have much more important things to deal with in Africa, such as reforming this organization and making it much, much more effective.

CORNISH: NPR's Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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